- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 18, 2020

President Trump ordered military hospital ships to coronavirus-struck areas Wednesday and invoked a Korean War-era law to mobilize U.S. manufacturing against a pandemic that has reached all 50 states, infected two members of Congress and placed the White House on a “wartime” footing.

The Defense Production Act allows the president to order private industries to ramp up production of supplies for military, energy, space and homeland security programs.

In this case, Mr. Trump may use it to procure medical gear such as ventilators, masks and personal protective equipment.

SEE ALSO: The Deadliest Pandemics

“It can do a lot of good things if we need it,” Mr. Trump told White House reporters. “It’s prepared to go.”

Mr. Trump’s decision to deploy the act was one of several midweek developments in the fight against a disease that has claimed 115 lives across the nation.

Rep. Ben McAdams, Utah Democrat, and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, Florida Republican, became the first members of Congress to report positive tests for COVID-19.

Mr. Diaz-Balart said he developed a fever and headache on Saturday.

“I want everyone to know that I am feeling much better. However, it is important that everyone take this extremely seriously and follow CDC guidelines in order to avoid getting sick and mitigate the spread of this virus,” Mr. Diaz-Balart said in a statement.

The House finished work early Saturday and sent lawmakers home, but Mr. Diaz-Balart said he self-quarantined in Washington to protect his wife in Florida. She has health conditions that put her at high risk should she contract the virus.

More than a dozen members of the House and Senate announced self-quarantines after being told that they had come into contact with someone who later tested positive, and some staffers revealed that they had tested positive for the disease.

The U.S. and Canada on Wednesday announced a closure of their 5,525-mile border to nonessential travel, exempting trade, and Detroit auto companies agreed to shut down North American plants for two weeks after a powerful labor union said its workers were at risk of contagion.

“This will give us time to review best practices and to prevent the spread of this disease,” said Rory Gamble, president of the United Auto Workers union, which pressed General Motors, Ford and Fiat Chrysler to pause operations.

The U.S. has recorded about 7,800 infections and at least 118 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins University tracker, although testing is ramping up and poised to reveal many more cases. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced the first death in his state Wednesday evening — a Prince George’s County resident in his 60s who suffered from an underlying medical condition.

Worldwide, over 200,000 cases and more than 8,200 deaths have been reported.

The World Health Organization said the fight against the virus is winnable but only if countries isolate, test, trace and treat their cases.

“Don’t assume your community won’t be affected. Prepare as if it will be. Don’t assume you won’t be infected. Prepare as if you will be,” WHO Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus said.

Mr. Trump said he is on a wartime footing as Washington explores ways to resuscitate the economy and prop up workers who have been furloughed or laid off amid sweeping business closures and plummeting demand for items such as air travel and hotel rooms.

“It’s a very tough situation here. You have to do things, you have to close parts of an economy that six weeks ago were the best they’ve ever been,” the president said. “One day you have to close it down in order to defeat this enemy. But we’re doing it, and we’re doing it well.”

Mr. Trump said his decision to close the Canadian border to nonessential travel is “not affecting trade” and was made in partnership with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

“It’s just something we thought would be good for both countries,” he said.

The closure of the 5,525-mile border will be temporary as the leaders assess the pandemic.

“I would say 30 days,” Mr. Trump said. “Hopefully, at the end of 30 days we’ll be in great shape.”

Democrats were happy that Mr. Trump mobilized “war-scale” manufacturing through the Defense Production Act but said it should have been put into use a while ago.

“Instead of preparing and mobilizing for this pandemic, President Trump tried to downplay it,” said Sen. Jack Reed, Rhode Island Democrat. “As a result, America is not as ready as we should be.”

The president said he invoked the act in case the situation deteriorates.

“I only signed the Defense Production Act to combat the Chinese Virus should we need to invoke it in a worst case scenario in the future. Hopefully there will be no need, but we are all in this TOGETHER!” he tweeted late Wednesday.

Mr. Trump insists he is doing a good job of getting the country prepared for a coming wave of cases.

His executive order says he is invoking the Defense Production Act to ensure that hospitals have the capacity and capability to respond to the spread of the coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19.

“It is critical that all health and medical resources needed to respond to the spread of COVID-19 are properly distributed to the nation’s healthcare system and others that need them most at this time,” his order says.

Mr. Trump also said he is expanding the use of “self-swab” kits to free up busy health care professionals. U.S. testing lags behind that of peer countries.

The president also ordered a pair of military ships, the USNS Comfort and USNS Mercy, to operate as floating hospitals.

The USNS Comfort, a converted supertanker built in the 1970s, is slated for New York but is undergoing maintenance in Norfolk, Virginia, Pentagon officials confirmed.

“They’re going to expedite the maintenance that they can,” said chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman. “That’s not a ‘days’ issue — that’s a ‘weeks’ issue. So it’s going to be a little while.”

The USNS Mercy, sister ship to the Comfort, is located in San Diego and will likely be sent somewhere on the West Coast. When the decision is made, the USNS Mercy may arrive before the New York-bound hospital ship gets out of port.

“The Mercy will be prepared and ready to go much sooner. They are hopefully going to be prepared to go in ‘days’ and not ‘weeks,’ ” Mr. Hoffman said. “They’ve had a warning order to get ready for the last few days.”

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is eagerly awaiting the ship, which will be able to treat trauma patients and free up capacity for hospitals dealing with COVID-19.

“It has about 1,000 rooms on it. It has operating rooms, and the president is going to dispatch the Comfort to us,” he said at a news conference in Albany.

Mr. Cuomo said he and Mr. Trump agreed that they are fighting the same war.

“And we’re in the same trench, and I have your back, you have my back, and we’re going to do everything we can for the people of the state of New York,” he said. “His actions demonstrate that he is doing that.”

Mr. Cuomo said the state was mandating that nonessential businesses have no more than 50% of their employees working outside their homes in an effort to limit the density of gatherings.

He said the mandate would exempt essential services such as groceries, pharmacies and health care.

“Society has to function,” he said. “I understand that this is a burden to businesses. I get it. I understand the impact on the economy. But in truth, we’re past that point as a nation. There is going to be an impact on the economy.”

In Washington, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper said his department is making 5 million N95 masks available to health care workers, including 1 million immediately, and freeing up 2,000 ventilators from its stockpile.

Also Wednesday, Vice President Mike Pence said doctors will be able to operate across state lines, as health care systems share resources, and the administration issued guidelines that formalize their plea for Americans to defer elective surgeries.

Federal officials are rushing sorely needed tests to every corner of the country, though officials said people should not seek a test unless they have symptoms. At the same time, Mr. Trump was unable to explain why privileged people without symptoms, including NBA players, were able to get tested while everyday Americans could not.

“Perhaps that’s the story of life,” Mr. Trump said. “That does happen on occasion.”

Italy and other parts of Europe continued to reel from COVID-19. Spain and Germany were facing 14,000 and 12,000 cases, respectively, and France was approaching 8,000.

Italy’s death toll of nearly 3,000 is approaching that of China, which stands at 3,241 in the Johns Hopkins data.

Deborah Birx, the U.S. coronavirus response coordinator, said “concerning” reports from Italy and France suggest that young adults can be severely impacted by the coronavirus. She said there has been “a disproportional number of infections” in millennials but not a significant number of deaths in children.

She has implored young Americans for days to avoid crowded bars and other situations that might spread the virus. She also said people should try to avoid hard surfaces outside of the home that may harbor the virus.

“The level of contagion has been incredible,” Mr. Trump said.

The White House said it will broadcast public service announcements and partner with the Ad Council, major media networks and digital platforms to air important messages on social distancing, personal hygiene and mental health amid the pandemic.

The president in February predicted a swift end to the crisis. Now he is striking a somber tone about the pandemic while calling on Americans to rally to the fight.

“We’re all in this together, and we’ll come through together,” Mr. Trump said.

The president referred to the pathogen as the “Chinese virus.” He says the name reflects its origins in Wuhan, China, but others claim it stigmatizes Asian Americans.

WHO officials say people should refer to the disease as COVID-19.

Mr. Trump signaled that he doesn’t plan to change his tune, even after a reporter pointed to reports of bias against Chinese Americans across the country.

“It comes from China. It’s not racist at all,” Mr. Trump said. “It comes from China. I wanted to be accurate.”

• Mike Glenn, Sophie Kaplan, Lauren Meier and David Sherfinski contributed to this report.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide